Insider: How Dan Burke's lasted 20 years with Pacers
Pacers assistant coach enters 20th season with new challenges
BY NATE TAYLOR, INDYSTAR
INDIANAPOLIS – Larry Bird made a statement on May 16 that was both surprising and revealing.
Bird was introducing Nate McMillan as the Indiana Pacers’ new coach, and the future of the roster was brought up. Free agency was looming yet Bird did not mention which position he wanted to bolster or what particular type of player he hoped to acquire.
Instead, he mentioned assistant coach Dan Burke.
“He’s been a very important part over 19 years of what we’ve done here,” Bird said of Burke then. “It’s important for me that he would be my first free agent.”
Yes, the first free agent Bird signed to a contract after hiring McMillan in the offseason was Burke, the Pacers’ defensive savant. Entering his 20th season with the Pacers, Burke is the longest tenured assistant with the same team in the NBA.
Burke, though, is not the typical assistant. He is the constant influence who has helped the Pacers remain one of the better defensive teams in the league. The roster changes, the style of play changes and the superstars change. Burke, many in the franchise say, however, has not changed. He is still the tough tactician whom Bird and the Pacers trust most.
With a philosophical shift this season from defense-first to an emphasis on up-tempo offense, McMillan and the Pacers are putting their defensive hopes and expectations on Burke.
He must get Jeff Teague and Monta Ellis, a smaller than usual backcourt, to use their speed to be effective on defense, not destructive. He has to groom Myles Turner from a talented shot-blocker into a well-rounded rim protector. He has to figure out how to get even more perimeter defensive talent out of Paul George.
But before Burke, 57, began solving such obstacles, he reflected two weeks ago on how he reached two decades with the Pacers.
“I just go from year to year,” he said. “When people would say, ‘Wow, it’s your 10th year,’ I used to joke, ‘Yeah, I’m tricking them.’ Now, I’m thinking Larry is just trying to wait until I get it right.
"To me, it’s a job I love. It worked out well. It doesn’t seem like 20 because I just love every minute of it.”
Not only has Burke dissected opponents on video, but he has also built impactful relationships with his players. Mention Burke’s name to any Pacer this season, or from several in the past, and their reaction is usually a smile and the reference to D.B., Burke’s nickname.
Ellis joined the Pacers last season as a 10-year veteran known for his offensive talents, not his defense. But Ellis and Burke became friends almost instantly. Ellis said Burke, in many ways, reminds him of Jonas James, who coached Ellis in middle school and high school.
“I love D.B. to death,” Ellis said two weeks ago. “One thing about it, he don’t shy away from any guy, no matter if you’re the top (of the roster) down to the bottom. He always calls you out when you’re wrong. He always pushes you to get better. You can’t do nothing but respect a coach like that.”
Burke, who is from Sherwood, Ore., began his NBA career with the Portland Trail Blazers. He was a video coordinator and scout for eight years, with the Trail Blazers making the NBA Finals twice during that time. Dick Harter was the defensive guru in Portland, and he mentored Burke.
Bird hired both men when he became the coach of the Pacers in 1997. Since then, Bird has made it a priority to ensure that Burke remains in Indiana.
“Dick Harter is the best defensive coach I’ve seen in this league,” Bird said in September. “Nobody can replace Dick. But (Dan) is very similar and he demands guys to play hard on the defensive end. You’ve got to win with your defense, and Dan’s proven that over the years his defenses get things done. A few years ago, when we were winning and getting to the Eastern Conference finals, we were guarding people and that’s what we've got to do. I’m not saying Frank (Vogel) didn’t have something to do with that neither, but Dan’s always been my guy and I hope he’s here forever.”
Burke’s resume is as impressive as how people speak of him. With Burke, the Pacers have reached the NBA Finals once and the conference finals five times. He scouted for Bird, survived the Isiah Thomas years, teamed up with Rick Carlisle, served Jim O’Brien and nurtured Frank Vogel. He has created defensive schemes around limiting Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd and LeBron James. Over the past 19 seasons, only the Spurs have a better defensive rating (points per 100 possessions).
“When you got a guy with that much knowledge, you don’t second-guess that,” C.J. Miles said. “Why would you? I have no reason not to trust him. When you’ve got Larry Bird putting people in those (coaching) seats, you don’t second-guess.”
One of Burke’s best qualities, through all the years, is his loyalty.
“You’re committed to each player and each coach,” he said. “When a Jim O’Brien or even an Isiah come in and say, ‘Look, I’d like to keep you, but I don’t know if you’ll be on the bench.’ That’s fine. What’s my role and whatever you want me to do I’ll do it. You’re grateful being part of something.”
Burke’s loyalty to the Pacers was tested this summer. His contract expired in May after the Pacers were eliminated by the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs. Bird decided to not retain Vogel, and Burke’s future became uncertain. He told his wife, Peggy, it might be time to start thinking about moving.
Indiana Pacers coaching staff on the bench in the third quarter. From left, Jim Boylen, Brian Shaw, Frank Vogel and Dan Burke. As the Pacers let Cleveland get a 20-point lead, Vogel got ejected from the game and Brian Shaw took over, as the Pacers came back to defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers 99-94 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Tuesday April 9, 2013. (Photo: Joe Vitti / IndyStar 2013 file photo)
Several teams called Burke in the offseason to try to persuade him to leave the Pacers. He refused to mention the teams or which head coaches reached out to him. But a few minutes later, Burke did reveal one coach with whom he had a conversation.
“Have you signed anything with the Pacers?” asked Vogel once he became the coach of the Orlando Magic.
“Nothing is signed,” Burke responded. “But I gave my word.”
“Whatever they’re doing, I’ll do more.”
“I gave my word."
When Bird fired Vogel, Burke said he was stunned — just as stunned as when Bird walked away from coaching the Pacers after his third season and a trip to the NBA Finals. Matching his personality, Burke’s reason for why he stayed in Indiana to join McMillan was simple and short.
“Larry and Nate jumped on it fast,” he said. “Why leave?”
Faced with new challenges, Burke’s job is to help McMillan ensure that these Pacers play at a higher standard than a year ago, even if they were third in the league in defensive rating per 100 possessions. The Pacers’ pace is expected to increase this season — as are the points — but George stressed that the team still needs to have the defensive DNA that Burke has instilled all these years.
“It’s his principles, it’s his philosophy, it’s his tenacity, his edge,” George said in explaining how Burke helped create the team’s defensive reputation. “Everything that we’ve been so great defensively, he’s kind of anchored that; from being hard-nosed, playing hard, being tough, having that grit. That all stems from D.B.”
When Burke began working for Bird in 1997, he soon learned that a dependable work ethic, not some innovative scheme, would impresse and please his boss. Bird demanded the best from his coaches, then demanded that his assistants do the same to the players. Burke has never forgotten that in his 20 years — and he believes Bird has always remembered such.
“Knowing him, he just likes people that come in and work,” Burke said of Bird. “You don’t (expletive), you just work.”’
During Monday’s practice, Burke was at work. He watched the Pacers scrimmage and began teaching every time McMillan blew his whistle to stop the action.
Burke explained, and then showed Glenn Robinson III — with his forearm — how to better deny the ball on an inbound pass and how to neutralize the opponent’s movement on the perimeter. A few plays later, he joked with Turner about how he was beat, rather easily, by veteran Al Jefferson when it came to post positioning. Then Burke put his feet in the paint and showed Turner where he needed to be before the ball is passed into the post. Later, he praised Ellis for how loud he barked defensive assignments at his teammates as the starters ran back on defense after a transition basket.
Burke, always one of the last people to leave the practice court, cherishes these moments in training camp, as he builds the foundation for yet another year.
“I’ve been blessed,” he said, “and lucky.”
The Pacers, year after year, say the same about having Burke.